Foundation media: Penny Dreadfuls

Morning, campers!  It’s another meeting of the Order of the Disgruntled Camel, Hump Day, whatever you want to call it, and it is COLD!  I’m both a Southerner and a summer person; I despise the cold.  Add onto that the fact that arthritis is what gave me training wheels (and I’ve had it since I was eleven), so you can guess it’s not so minor; arthritis hates the cold.  So expect a bit of bitching and moaning as last winter’s record colds fed into the coolest summer I can remember in my lifetime and now leads into what is promising to be another miserably cold winter.  And it’s starting early, damn the luck!

Meh. Enough whinging.  I had originally planned to do an article on rationing during World War II.  But in honor of Banned Books week, I decided to talk about books instead.   I have never understood the logic of banning a book.  My parents never censored anything I read, watched, or wrote.  My dad used to say, “All reading is good, whether it’s a comic book, Tolstoy, or the back of a cereal box.”  If I encountered something that was challenging, scary, prurient, etc, well, that’s what Mom and Dad were there for, to talk it over with.  I raised my own children the same way, and I’m proud to say, I now am the happy parent of a quartet of hardcore book junkies.

But not everybody thinks the way my family did.  And, unfathomable to me, some people think that it’s not enough to merely refuse to read something they find objectionable; they simply MUST prevent anybody else from reading it either.  They have the best of motives:  they want to protect the public from the radical, dangerous, disgusting, offensive, and salacious.  Well, I call bullshit! I am an adult.  I will decide for myself.

To ban a book is an act of theft, in my mind.  You ban a book, you’re stealing its contents from me.  You’re stealing information from me, withholding knowledge and insight.  Maybe it’s crap, maybe it’s not.  But how dare you steal it from me!  If I want to fill my mind with dangerous, offensive or salacious crap, that’s my decision, not yours.

I hope you’re the same way, and want to think for yourself.  To that end, here are several links to lists of banned books.  I’ve read a bunch of them on these lists.  Some offended me, some confused me, some were meh. But I’m proud to have read them, and I’ll do it again.   Find them.  Read them.  Keep the lists circulating, and, if you live in a place where a book is banned, find them online.  This is one of the few times I’m all in favor of bootlegging and piracy; if there’s no other legal way to get hold of a book, better to illegally download it than do without because somebody else told you it was bad for you.  If these books offend you, don’t read them again, write bad reviews of them, whatever.  But decide for yourself; nobody gets to decide for you, and you don’t get to decide for anybody else.

Banned Children’s Books

Wikipedia’s (hardly comprehensive) list

A list from the UK

A list from the New York Times

Classic books that have been banned

Okay, I’m putting the soapbox away now, it’s safe to come out of hiding.  All right, remember I said  that periodically I was going to talk about the foundations of our beloved genres, taking a look at media that either directly led to the present day Steampunk, Dieselpunk and New Pulp, or were so influential in themselves that they couldn’t help but shape our genres?  Well, here we go again.

If you recall, last week I talked about the TV show “Penny Dreadful.”  That show got its name from the actual books called penny dreadfuls.  They were also called “penny bloods” and “penny numbers” (the “number” was because the issues were usually serialized stories, the issues numbered in order).  So what were penny dreadfuls?  They were books, obviously, the 19th century equivalent of what we’d nowadays call cheap airport novels:  quick, dirty reads, full of sex, violence and sensationalism, written for the lowest common denominator readers, and loved by same.  Think the Victorian equivalent of “Fifty Shades of Gray” or the Twilight novels.

(quick note:  “penny dreadful” in this conversation, refers to the British publications.  It was at first a primarily British phenomenon.  Americans had similar publications at the same time, but were usually called “boy’s papers” or “dime novels.”)

Nowadays, people in the writing business debate endlessly over the differences between Capital-L Literature and the hated “genre” novel.  Both sides have their stances, both have good points and silly notions (the fact is, from the actual act of writing standpoint, there isn’t really that much of a difference between the two, but that’s a conversation for another day).  But many seem to think it’s a 20th and 21st century phenomenon.  That’s silly; there has been such divisions since the invention of the printing press.  Let’s face it:  Gutenburg didn’t print the Bible on his press because he had a high moral character (which he may or may not have had; don’t know, don’t care).  He printed the Bible because he knew he could sell them.  Writers and publishers may have high morals, personal character by the bucketful, and their poop smells like roses. But they gotta pay their heating bills same as everybody else.

What am I getting at?  For every copy of the Great Gatsby that sells, a couple hundred thousand copies of Fifty Shades are sold.  Literature is nice, and has a place.  But the vast maority of people do not have the inclination to read high-minded, intellectual Literature; they want a cheap thrill, a bit of titillation, and, most importantly, a couple hours’ escape from their daily lives. Sensationalism sells.  If a writer or a publisher wants to make a living, he does not ever forget that fact.

a woodcut from Varney the Vampire

That’s what has been happening in publishing since there was such a thing as publishing.  In the 17th and 18th century, the public devoured broadsides over chapbooks.  In the 19th century, it became the penny dreadful.  So what’s a penny dreadful?  It was cheap fiction sold for a penny or half a penny; they had mostly adventures, romances, and violence in the Grand Guignol vein (vein, heh heh heh).  The stories were usually serialized over the course of months, and were woodcut-illustrated with the sort of lurid imagery (a half naked woman bound to a bed, a vampire looming over some helpless child, a masked man on a horse, brandishing pistols) that would feel right at home on any classic pulp novel or modern B-movie poster.

“But this was the age of Dickens and Trollope, of Leo Tolstoy and Victor Hugo, some of the most brilliant literature of any century!  Who was buying this lurid trash and why?”  I’m glad you asked (but you didn’t ask — shush!  I’m expounding)

cover illustration Sweeney Todd

The 19th century saw the beginning of a lot more than just the Industrial Revolution.  It saw major cities like New York and London explode in population as people left the countryside to find work in the factories.  It also saw a rise in the general literacy rates. The poor and the working class had at least a passing familiarity with books and reading, and they hungered for entertainment (TV and the internet not having been invented yet).  For a while, they had what we’d call tabloid newpapers:  magazines and newspapers that specialized in the sensational.

I know, I know:  Dickens.  Right, Dickens was a huge seller, and his appeal crossed all social classes.  But he was just one guy, the Stephen King of his day.  No way he could single handedly feed the hunger of all those new readers.

So what was I saying before I got sidetracked?  Oh, right, penny dreadfuls.  These books were cheaply printed on cheap pulp paper, and they made no pretense of literary merit.  They were meant to appeal to (usually) young lower class men.  And just like today, you want to appeal to young men, you better be writing sex, violence and action, and lots of it.

woodcut from Black Bess

Varney the Vampire was probably the most famous penny dreadful of all time.  (it’s free online!  You can read it here).  He is the archetype of vampire fiction, consolidating a wide array of folklore and locking down the tropes we now consider de rigeur for vampires:  the puncture wounds in the neck, the superhuman strength, mind control/hypnosis.  All those appeared first in Varney the Vampire.  It was even the first appearance of the Anne-Rice-like angsty “sympathetic” vampire.  Are you getting me: this thing was HUGE. It was a big influence on Bram Stoker’s Dracula, right on up through Buffy and those horny bloodsuckers in True Blood.

My British readers will recognize another hero from the pages of the penny dreadfuls:  Dick Turpin.  Dick Turpin was a real thief from the 18th century, pretty famous in his day.  There were several sensational pieces written about him throughout the 18th and 19th century, the most well known of which was Black Bess or the Knight of the Road, you guessed it, a penny dreadful.  Which may explain how he went from being a sleazy poacher, horse thief and highwayman who killed two people and betrayed his fellow gang members to a romantic highwayman and quasi-Robin-Hood figure  (again, free online from Barnes and Noble; you can read it here).

Okay, this is still the Victorian era; like Jekyll and Hyde, the Victorians were not at all opposed to a little sex and violence, but they didn’t want it out where everybody could watch.  So there was a general outcry against the penny dreadfuls.  Along came a fellow named Alfred Harmsworth.  He decided to introduce story papers with more morally upright stories, and sell them for half a penny, undercutting the cost of the dreadfuls.  It sorta worked, but it wasn’t long before Harmsworth (and his imitators, he wasn’t the only one) was printing the same sort of sensational stuff the dreadfuls had exploited.  Like I said, sensationalism sells.  I bring up Harmsworth in particular because he introduced something that became huge later on:  the comic book.  Basically it was his half penny story paper, only with the story told in pictures.  How huge a success were these?  Umm, Harmsworth used his profits to launch a couple of tiny, insignificant straight London newspapers:  The Daily Mirror and The Daily Mail.  Yeah, comics were a big success for him.

Long story short (too late!), the penny dreadful never quite died out, though they evolved over time.  Dime novels were the American version, and the birthplace of the romantic mystique of the Wild West and the cowboy, among others.  They were also, if not the birthplace, at least the nursery of early 20th century science fiction, with Tom Swift and his contemporaries.  And from there, where did they lead?  The pulps, naturally.

The penny dreadfuls were more than a foundation for Steampunk, Dieselpunk and New Pulp; they are our literary ancestors, a direct bloodline from the past right up to the stuff you find on Amazon.com today.  Tropes carry over from that day to this, like in Varney the Vampire.  Simply the idea of mass market publishing, aiming at a specific demographic and tailoring your stories to appeal to that demographic came to fruition in the penny dreadful.  Steampunk is, whether it knows it or not, is often an imitation of the themes, atmosphere and sensibilities of the penny bloods; Dieselpunk is a 20th century reincarnation of the same. And without the penny dreadful, there would be no modern pulps or comics.

If you want to read more, check here for two pretty good archives of period British penny dreadfuls and American dime novels.

Stanford University collection of American Dime Novels

An informative page with a small selection of British penny dreadfuls

a small collection of woodcuts from penny dreadfuls

Wow.  I got a little long-winded, didn’t I?  Sorry.  What can I say, it’s a fascinating subject for me.  I read Varney the Vampire back in the day, and enjoyed the heck out of it.  I’m such a nerd.  But that’s it for me today.  Next up is Fun Friday; if you have any ideas for what would make a good subject for Fun Friday, contact me at the email address on my About AJ page.  Even if you don’t have a recommendation, please do tweet, share, and comment; your feedback is all the pay I get for my literary meanderings.  In the meantime, be good (and if you can’t be good, don’t get caught!) and remember, only 37 more days to Halloween!

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Categories: books, Classic pulp, Dieselpunk, Foundation media, History, Pulp, Steampunk | 9 Comments

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9 thoughts on “Foundation media: Penny Dreadfuls

  1. Pingback: Ramblings Of The Sleepy And The Sick pt.2 | Eclectic Little Dork

  2. Lillith

    This is true. But I think it goes back to the idea that you must sell your first or very early works, which is to me a myth. The whole I must sell something now thing if you know what I mean? Anyway, I know I learned a lot writing my novella and will certainly be writing more in the future. I’m thinking of doing one to serialize on my blog, possibly steampunk or maybe some other form of SFFH. Or posting on Wattpad and Fictionpress.

    • Well, as you can see on ClarksonPunk, I’m a big believer in serializing stories on a blog. I love reading them, and I’m discovering that writing them can be very rewarding. They’re a challenge, because I need some sort of “cliffhanger” at the end of each installment, and each section has to have some sort of shape, as though it were a tiny story inside the larger story. And of course, working to a deadline, which always revs my writing engine. But so far it’s been an enjoyable set of challenges.

      • Lillith

        Ok, I’m sold! Now I just need to figure out what type of story I want to write, and length. Length would help too I’m betting. Because I don’t want to serialize anything more than a novella most likely, probably more in the range of a novelette. Hmmm. *goes off to ponder things to herself*

      • Mwa ha ha! Another soldier for my internet army of literary conquest! *cough* Oh, erm, what was I saying? Oh, right. Good for you, Lillith! You have to let me know when your story starts to go up on your blog, so I can come read. And if it’s pulp, Dieselpunk or Steampunk, tell me, and I’ll link to it here so my readers can come enjoy as well!

  3. Lillith

    Yes! I got to say I love this post with the passion of 500 suns. It is simply wonderful, from the information given to the awesome soapboxy rant at the top. I’m probably going to give you a pingback for this when I make my next blog post, since you explained Penny Dreadfuls better than I ever could. It ties right into my recent thing about the classics. I mean come on, some of the classics got started as these cheap thrills for the masses. How can anyone say they’re boring in light of that!

    • Thank you! On the classics: I totally agree! And, like the pulps did for 20th century writers, my research hinted that the dreadfuls acted as a proving ground and apprenticeships for new writers. I probably should have touched on that in the body of the post, but I just ran out of space and time.

      • Lillith

        That makes perfect sense to me. At the time Pennies and pulps were popular, writers made good livings serializing their work and in shorts or novellas. Which is why I don’t understand why modern aspiring novelists don’t try to start off with novellas or collections like those from the 19th to early 20th century did. Finishing a themed novel length collection proves you can focus on a topic. And finishing novellas proves you can tell a story without too much meandering and fluff. They’re hard to sell, but the idea you have to sell your first genuine effort at writing is overrated. So many people jump in and fail because they think they have to hammer out this at least 80K thing first time out of the door.

        You may get good at novels only by writing them, but shorter forms of fiction force you to hone your words a lesson that will do a budding novelist good.

      • I know that when I was first getting into the biz, when the Internet was still very very new, the reason I didn’t get into novellas was because there was NO market for them. If you wanted to sell, you either wrote shorter and got into the magazines or you wrote long and got into book publishing. That’s one of the reasons I’ve been delighted by the emergence of the e-book market. It made novellas a salable commodity again. I might hesitate to buy a 120K word monstrosity from an unknown writer; but to spend 99 cents to pick up a novella and get my feet wet with this unknown is not unreasonable and very cost effective.

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